Loathe as I am to admit it, a copy of James Watson’s historical novel The Double Helix does reside on one of my bookshelves. (Though I did purchase it in a used bookstore, so he garnered no profit from me.) As you may recall, The Double Helix, based loosely on Watson’s experiences in England at the time the structure of DNA was discovered, showcased his imaginative powers, and introduced the world to a character known as “Rosy”. Rosy was a disagreeable, plodding scientist – really barely more than a good technician – incapable of understanding the meaning of her data. Her fashion sense did not meet with Watson’s personal high standards (evidenced by his unlaced sneakers and flyaway shirt). And, of course, she did not know the first thing about styling her hair. (Readers who own a copy of The Double Helix may admire a particularly stunning photograph of Mr. Watson walking with Francis Crick that reveals his own to-die-for hairdo.) Every novel needs a protagonist and an antagonist, and Rosy was the antagonist to Heroic Jim. It made for a good read, if you like that sort of leering, misogynistic stuff.
Now, late in life Watson gives us a second historical novel! The September/October issue of Technology Review arrived in my mailbox this week, and it contains an excerpt from the not-yet-published novel, Avoid Boring People. ABP also includes a female character, not unlike the one in The Double Helix.
ABP’s character is named “Rosalind Franklin”. She should not, however, be confused with the real-life Rosalind Franklin, whom you can read about in Brenda Maddox’s authoritative biography, Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. Potential readers of ABP might be confused, since there is a real life person of the same name as Watson’s poor-excuse-for-a-crystallographer character. Therefore, I have taken it upon my self to provide this service: I will help you parse the differences between the fictional Rosalind Franklin and the real-life Rosalind Franklin. To keep them straight, we will refer to Jim Watson’s fictional Rosalind as j-Franklin, and the real-life person as Franklin. This seems appropriate, as j is sometimes used to denote the imaginary unit.
But Rosalind didn’t want a collaborator; all she wanted from Maurice [Wilkins] was the help of his research student Raymond Gosling.
From Maddox’s biography we learn that Franklin was Gosling’s thesis supervisor. We also learn of the many long-standing and fruitful collaborations Franklin undertook throughout her career before and after her time at King’s College. Franklin relished and sought out collaborative work. Franklin and Wilkins, however, did not get on well together for a variety of reasons, not least of which was lab boss J. T. Randall’s inability to foster a healthy working environment in his lab group.
Maurice was more than relieved to learn that Linus [Pauling] was so far off base. In contrast, Rosalind was annoyed at my showing her [Pauling’s] manuscript, tartly telling me that she had no need to read about helices. In her mind, the crystalline DNA A-form structure was most certainly not helical. In fact, six months before she had sent out invitations to a July “memorial service” to celebrate the death of the DNA helix.
Franklin (from Maddox’s book):
Rosalind…wrote a death notice for the DNA helix. Wilkins was greatly upset by this prank…To [Raymond] Gosling, Rosalind was simply playing devil’s advocate. The ‘death notice’ referred only to the A form – ‘crystalline’ – of DNA. At no time, Gosling has said, did she believe the structure of the B form was anything other than helical…But she believed that it was impossible to prove the helix by model building and her arguments with Maurice were – so Gosling thought – an escape mechanism to ensure she was left alone to pursue the job to which she felt she had been assigned: to find the structure directly from the data, not from guesswork.
Stokes later admitted that he and Wilkins took the ‘death notice’ more seriously than Rosalind and Gosling intended…She and Gosling both wanted to display their evidence that offered an alternative explanation for the A form that was not helical.
…[Rosalind] had carefully measured her x-ray diffraction patterns…looking for possible molecular symmetries. Finding her data compatible with three possible chemical “space groups,” she went…to get advice from Dorothy Hodgkin, then England’s premier crystallographer, justly famed for solving the structure of penicillin. As soon as Dorothy saw that Rosalind was considering space groups involving mirror symmetry, however, she sensed crystallographic callowness. Experienced crystallographers would never postulate [this]…Upset by Dorothy’s sharp put-down of her crystallographic acumen, Rosalind left Oxford, never to return.
Franklin (Maddox book):
Rosalind took a set [of her photographs] to Oxford to show Dorothy Hodgkins…Hodgkin exclaimed that Rosalind’s photographs were the best she had ever seen – so clear, in fact, that it might be possible to work out the space group of the crystal…Rosalind volunteered that she had already narrowed the possibilities down to three space groups. But two of these, Hodgkin swiftly pointed out, were impossible. Only one had the correct ‘handedness’ for the sugars in DNA. Rosalind accepted the correction.*
*Watson has often used this story against Rosalind, claiming…that she was stung by Hodgkin’s comment which she took as a rebuke for her ignorance of crystallography. But Jack Dunitz who was present says that Watson’s retelling of Rosalind’s reaction is exaggerated and that she accepted the correction of such a respected senior scientist with good humor.
Rosalind Franklin would have seen the double helix first had she seen fit to enter the model-building race and been better able to interact with other scientists. If she had accepted rather than rejected Maurice as a collaborator, the two of them could not have failed to realize the significance of the monoclinic space group. Dorothy Hodgkin’s Oxford put-down of Rosalind as a crystallographer would not have been the fatal wound that it seems in retrospect.
Maddox addresses the endless speculation about whether Rosalind Franklin would-have, could-have gotten the structure of DNA first, if-only… Rosalind’s lab notebooks show she was clearly on the path to the correct solution, and no less than Francis Crick himself has said that she would have gotten it on her own in three months. It does seem fair to suggest that if Watson and Crick had not had access to her data without her permission or knowledge, they would have had a much harder time with the model building.
Maddox suggests that the real moral or ethical issue is that seeing the data was the pivotal moment for Watson, yet he never acknowledged this to Franklin in her lifetime. As she points out, “Such acknowledgement as they gave her was very muted and always coupled with the name of Wilkins…The fact was that Rosalind did not report this information to them herself and she was not even speaking to Wilkins.”
Maddox speculates that “Rosy” was created as a character so evil that it justified taking what you needed by stealth – that Watson was in a moral situation not unlike Heinz and the Mean Druggist. Jim and the Mean Crystallographer. Rosy, Maddox says, can also be traced to the ancient myth of “She asked for it” which goes all the way back to Eve.
In the new novel, j-Franklin is not a Mean Crystallographer, merely an Incompetent Crystallographer. She was so incompetent…hell, she was just asking to have her data used in stealth. As Maddox says, “When outright mockery became impolitic, she began to be damned with faint praise…called ‘sound’ and ‘a good experimentalist’…it has been suggested that…she could not understand her own data or work in teams, accept criticism or use imagination.” j-Franklin is “fatally wounded” by a word of criticism that exposes her “crystallographic callowness” because she is unable to collaborate with the ever-amiable Wilkins. Wilkins himself bears no responsibility for their discord, and J. T. Randall’s role in setting up the conflict between them in the first place is scarcely acknowledged.
Watson can bear no responsibility for that last point, but he does bear responsibility for continuing to spread outright lies about Rosalind Franklin after her death, in order to assuage a guilty conscience that must be haunting him still. What really takes the cake is where Watson assigns the blame for Rosalind’s inability to get the structure of DNA first. Who dealt her a “fatal wound”? Not any of the men around her who maligned her behind her back, or who mocked her Jewishness through a crude prank in the laboratory, and most certainly not the men who were inspired by her data to build a model and then conveniently forgot how important that data had been in initiating their work. No, the blame goes to another woman, Dorothy Hodgkin, a woman whose actions actually could be described as a useful consultation.
Anybody can find a publisher for any sort of tripe they want to peddle, but it really pisses me off that Technology Review excerpts this pack of lies under the title “Letter to a Young Scientist”. Just what lesson is the Young Scientist to learn from reading Watson’s self-serving recreation of history? Winner-take-all, and you get to badmouth your enemies, too. Just polish up your misogyny a little for the 21st century.
Given the fabrication of j-Franklin, it’s difficult to trust Watson’s characterizations of anyone else, or his depictions of any events. I could go on about discrepencies and elisions that show up in the excerpt compared to Maddox’s extensively researched biography of Franklin, but it’s too maddening. Do your wallet a favor, and take a pass on the new Watson novel, unless you are really in need of learning more about One Man’s Big Ego And How He Justifies Himself To The World.